Michelle Yeoh: Midlife women aren't past their prime–we're just getting started

The actor's Oscars speech showed just how times are changing for older, more experienced women.

Harper's Bazaar India

If you look up the definition of ‘prime’, a dictionary will tell you that it means "of the best possible quality; excellent". And if you use the word prime to describe something – think prime rib, prime real estate and prime time TV – it elevates whatever it's attached to. Anything that's prime is, let's face it, better. And thanks to actor Michelle Yeoh, we can now use the word in conjunction with midlife women.

“Ladies, don’t let anyone tell you you are past your prime,” she said on Sunday night, as she collected the first Leading Actress Oscar ever won by an Asian woman. Yeoh is 60; she accepted her award shortly before her co-star, Jamie Lee Curtis (who is 64) collected her first ever Oscar, too. I don’t know about you, but it seems that everyone, everywhere right now is a midlife woman doing something amazing in her prime. It's as if I've looked up and, suddenly, women like me are living their best life.

From Demi Moore launching her new swimwear line at 60, to Hannah Waddingham taking on Eurovision presenter duties at 49 alongside starring in the award-winning Ted Lasso, we are finally seeing an army of women – previously deemed out-of-date in the money-driven world of entertainment – stepping confidently into a new cultural relevance. It feels so modern seeing these 40-plus women owning their success because, up until recently, they were missing in action: on screen, in books, in the boardroom or in creative pursuits. Indeed, many were simply invisible to society in general.

I should know: I am a midlife woman and, on the brink of turning 55, I am enjoying finding my stride in a new career, a new domestic setting and a new creative output. I feel healthier, fitter, more confident and happier than ever before; like Michelle, I feel like I'm in my prime. We've always been here, quietly and with no fanfare, working our way around a patriarchal system that valued youth over us.

I'm not saying that this new vanguard of older women should be applauded because they look ‘young’ enough for our deeply ageist society. It’s not about appearance. I am whooping for them because they are exploring the glorious, transformational feelings that midlife brings, which leads to liberating success.

These women are carving new paths, slightly more free of domestic duties and less tied down by what people think of them. They are highly visible, relishing their longevity in the limelight and dropping the ladder for those below by talking about their true age.

Hollywood midlifers currently basking in the glow of starring roles include Cate Blanchett, Angela Bassett and Sandra Bullock, not to mention those in the clutch of TV gems I'm currently enjoying. There's 40-year-old Leila Farzad in Better; Sarah Lancashire, 58, who had the whole world glued to their screens in Happy Valley; and the bikini-clad Philippine Leroy-Beaulieu who, at 59, is arguably one of the best things about Emily In Paris.

All these women are defined by the experiences that come with age right now; it’s their career success they – and we – are revelling in, not their looks. For years, men have been allowed to age on screen and still be offered critically acclaimed, career-enhancing roles. Women have not. Thank goodness things are changing, as more women get behind the financial wheel when it comes to film and TV (Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon and Shonda Rhimes to name but a few).

As a result, we are learning that it’s OK to see women of all ages in a central role (remember the incredible Kate Winslet in Mare of Easttown?). We’re finally happy for our protagonist to be a midlife woman, and they pull in the same audience numbers as male leads – something we knew all along, but didn’t have the opportunity to prove.

I co-host a podcast called Postcards From Midlife, which I set up three years ago, shortly before I stepped out of my three-decade career editing magazines. I have just written a book – What’s Wrong With me; 101 Things Midlife Women Need to Know – which is out in May. My experience means I have interviewed hundreds of midlife women, almost all of whom have felt invisible up until now.

They – well, we – slightly dreaded the ageing process. We feared we’d become irrelevant at a time when we had just come to feel more capable and commanding. There are a few wobbles of course, especially during your 40s, but then a liberated, midlife bravery can take over. I’ve interviewed countless women who’ve taken this bravery and run with it.

The actor Juliet Stevenson came on our podcast and told us she thought she shouldn’t mention her age, in case it limited her roles; then she realised she’d done her best theatre work in her early 60s. Last week, best-selling author Jane Fallon, 61, came on the show to explain how she woke up fuelled by an uncharacteristic new bravery at 45, and dumped her TV production career to start writing novels – which would go on to sell in their millions.

There is an epiphany that comes in midlife: it brings with it a clear sense of time running out and focuses you on putting skills learned over a lifetime to the test. You take risks, you refuse to listen to what others say, and you don’t let anyone (especially men) tell you that you are past your prime.

This piece originally appeared in Harper's Bazaar UK